Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, was conceived of by a military government in 1976, the idea was to find a ‘no-man’s land’ in the geographic centre of the country, which no one group could lay claim to, and an area in which Nigerians could unite under.
Except the 8,000 square kilometres of land upon which the capital, which includes the Presidential Villa, the National Assembly or parliament, dozens of Federal Government parastatals and institutions, and plush neighbourhoods and malls, was somebody’s land, the Gbagyi.
Along with some other small indigenous groups, they were hurriedly forced off their land by the military government to make way for the construction of the new capital, and promised compensation and resettlement.
When the military government of the day came to understand that the territory was in fact not ‘no man’s land’, they too grossly underestimated the number of Gbagyi people living on the territory as they continued with their plan for the area.
As it became more evident that hundreds of thousands of Gbagyi people existed and made their livelihoods from the territory, the compensation and resettlement plan was bungled, then effectively buried.
Decades on, the Gbagyi, who have received virtually nothing by way of compensation for their lost land, are fighting to get the money owed to them and be resettled properly.
The threat of violent ejection by the military rulers from their lands laid way to the fullscale loss of livelihood for thousands of Gbagyi families.
Thirty-six years on, young Gbagyi men and women are now fighting, not just for compensation and resettlement, but also for a say in how the capital is managed politically and economically, and a share of huge profits that come from land sales in the territory.
And it’s clear to see why.
Abuja is one of the fastest growing and most expensive cities in Africa. In recent years, land and property prices have ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars, rivalling the price of prime land in countries like the United Kingdom and France.
The city is also the political capital of the West Africa, accommodating the regional body, ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West Africa States, and the regional home of the diplomatic and international community.
The headquarters of major international corporations and organisations have also made Gbagyi land their home. It seems everybody wants a piece of the area. And as the years have gone on, Gbagyis have become more and more aware of the true scale and economic impact of the loss of their land.
But for Gbagyis to get what they want, compensation, resettlement and a political and economic share of the capital, the political will of members of the country’s National Assembly, or parliamentarians, must exist first.
The Nigerian constitution, which does not recognise the territory as a state, or the original inhabitants as a group within the territory, would need to be changed for Gbagyis to enjoy political power and some of the profits that come from their ancestral land.
But as ethnic minorities, symbolised, for example, by the fact that only three Gbagyis have seats in Nigeria’s 469 member National Assembly – the challenge to get the remaining parliamentary members behind the idea of restitution for the Gbagyi people, is going to be formidable.
The Gbagyi people, analysts say, also lack the financial muscle and political connections needed to get the Gbagyi land question onto the national agenda sufficiently enough to bring about their demands, especially against all the other national issues that need the attention of the country’s parliamentarians.
This is not helped by the perceived diplomatic and accommodating nature of the Gbagyi. But that image is changing.
The group, which it is estimated are owned at least $915m in compensation for the lost land, have held protests in Abuja in recent weeks over the matter, and are promising to bring the capital to a standstill of the issue is not addressed.
This action may have gone some way to influencing the National Assembly’s Consitutional Review Committee to look at addressing the Gbagyi land question in the coming weeks.